Disclaimer: The following are personal accounts of my travels the last month and represent my own opinion based on experiences and observation. By no means do I suggest that hygiene is unimportant nor unnecessary. The references to the history of bathing were garnered from websites and though surely there is far more information out there, the anecdotes shared offer a glimpse into a fascinating realm of life we most often never think about. This is a non-scientific study.
Indian Summer day’s spent in the backyard of our home on Pratt Boulevard in Chicago or after the age of 9, climbing through genip trees with my friend, Andy Adams, in the Bahamas, I would easily return home coated in sweat, dirt and disgust, never pondering whether a bath was necessary nor desired.
My mother (in a heavy Viennese accent) would always utter in sheer disgust:
Direct translations — “PIG-DOG!”
I was often called a Schweinehund.
Playing was my job.
Bathing, only a notion in the inconsequential rhythms of childhood.
Which brings us to today.
The last month — more specific, the past 43 days in Ethiopia while on assignment for National Geographic — my mother’s voice resonate incessantly in the internal dialogue any time a rare reflection exposed me:
“Look at you, covered in dirt! Look at your clothes! Stink to high-heaven! John, go take a bath — you’re a SCHWEINHUND!!”
Photography and Bathing
On many photo assignments, we often don’t have daily access to bath. Having covered more hard news and wars than my heart cares to recall, such deeply emotional events end up being periods of time where survival is principal. Food and water, secondary. Shelter measured by floorspace. Bathing, occasional.
For my naturalist colleagues at National Geographic, brilliant photographers like Michael “Nick” Nichols, Tim Laman, Steve Winter, Paul Nicklen, Christian Ziegler and so many others, bathing must also be inconsequential — these photographers live for weeks in the bush or on floating icecaps to enlighten all of us to care and sustain the natural world around us. Accessibility to use a bar of soap is surely equivalent to that of hygiene opportunities while documenting conflict; It will happen when it happens.
In reality, animals will repel from photographers if cloaked in a bouquet of chemicals so why bother.
A sniper couldn’t sniff the stench of Irish Spring (a brand of American soap) from a few meters away, let along care. You’re only in their sites, hoping they have poor aim.
More distinct, conflict photography thrusts in motion waves of endorphins, allowing to overcome your dearth of cleanliness — days (and nights) are connected to getting home alive.
I’ve gone long periods without bathing while covering revolutions and war, rarely perceiving my filth, torn clothing nor repugnant stench.
Keeping distracted via the power of opiate receptors hasn’t worked on this assignment for National Geographic in the Horn of Africa when it comes to bathing.
This story is not a fast breaking news event or a story occurring in a city or town. It’s a continuous journey where my task is to present a narrative based upon a span of time that is 59,850 years older than photography. Throughout this fascinating process, I’ve walked over 50 miles (80 kilometers) through deserts and ancient lava fields, driven over 7,000 miles (11,260 k) on nonexistent roads, doing both in an ever present cacophony of heat and dust.
Abundantly sweating is the norm.
Expanses of time to mull limitless potent — and nonsense — abound.
None of this is difficult. Rather, it simply goes with the job.
Exposed over the previous 43 days in this rather unique wandering (where the nearest hotel or even water is hundreds of miles away), an entirely experimental process occurred which inspired this story. A tale of truth wrapped around human existence, history, a forgotten reality and yes, a bit of photojournalism.
I hope you will be enthralled, as I have, to realize that at times, we all stand before the mirror of our ancestors, our great grandmothers and grandfathers of roughly 2,500 generations past, when they walked 60,000 years ago out of the Afar region of what is today, Ethiopia — not carrying a bar of soap.
Traveling overland since early January in the remotest, most inaccessible regions of Ethiopia — the spectacular Lower Rift Valley of Africa — has been an character altering experience.
More specific, this nonstop journey has taken place in a region of The Rift known as Afar. This area is populated mostly by pastoralist nomads.
Afar could be viewed as a nation uniquely its own. Afari’s have a completely different language, incomprehensible to their Ethiopian sisters and brothers. Entirely different customs and history.
Due to invisible lines which most often segregate rather than unite — borders — a vast majority of the Afar people (well over 1.5 million) call home an extensive portion of an already extremely diverse nation called Ethiopia (formerly known as Abyssinia). Afar is roughly the size of the both the U.S. states of North and South Dakota. Maybe larger. And the Afar diaspora stretches well beyond only Ethiopia, spreading deep into both Eritrea and Djibouti.
A key element lacking in this part of the world is the one item which no human can live without.
As astounding as this landscape has been, existence is mixed with a heaping toll of suffering for the inhabitance of Afar due to water scarcity.
An Afari elder recently told me something dreadful began 20-30 years ago (think climate change) — rain no longer falls.
In one village, Sudumta, I stumbled upon over 50 men, heads bowed to the ground towards a dried riverbed. Coincidence or sheer divine intervention, the exposed floor of the river and their prostration of reverence was in the direct trajectory of Mecca.
They were praying for rain.
Not a drop of water had fallen from cloudless skies in well over a year.
Desperation and God is all that was left.
What little water does exist in this part of the Lower Rift comes from holes, 10 ft (3 meters) deep. Levels of liquid are so negligible, a thin pan is deftly scrapped across wet dirt, daubing mouthful-amounts of silt-brown liquid into a slightly larger container — a repurposed jerry can that once contained cooking oil.
This modest amount of liquid is their only drinking water.
Using such scant recourses for bathing would be inconceivable.
Let me preface a earnest dose of reality — I DO like to bath!
Long gone are the days when Andy (my across the street neighbor on the island of Nassau) and I could play till soiled beyond recognition.
Knowing such water scarcity was the tragic norm in this part of Ethiopia, we did carry our own jerry can’s of water upon the roof of the LandCruiser, used (and only enough) for cooking.
Transporting enough water for 3-4 people to bath — Yonas Abiye (Ethiopian translator), Melesse (driver), Habibi and Indris (Afar guides) and myself — would require a small tanker in tow. Completely impractical.
What additional water we did carry was bottle water and those too were often in short supply.
Bathing quickly became crossed off any known To Do list for days.
When bathing water was available, it primarily manifested at grimy hotels frequented by truck drivers which incessantly ply the main artery that links Ethiopia to the outside world: The Port of Djibouti. Such brilliance liquid access occurred three or four times in the last month.
As disgusting to those of us living in the developed world might take the next phase in this narrative, you will be astonished to know that our bodies were never designed to be bathed as often as we do today.
Here begins an experiment, one which wasn’t by choice, rather a natural evolution brought upon by environmental changes (lack of rain):
Day 1: Fresh clothing. Hair and skin are clean. You feel nearly buoyant.
Day 2: Clothing has received a few stains — gravity is not my friend when eating — and though no longer as buoyant, a sweaty shirt, trousers, and yes, the same underwear, don’t seem all that dreadful to keep using, knowing even if you did change clothing, within minutes you’d be covered in Afar dust, so why bother.
Day 3: Only by day three do you begin to sense (from our developed nation mindset) that physical needs might be going awry. Disgust manifests, yet you keep a forward presents, knowing once again that donning anything clean would not solve the problem due to daily dust storms and relentless heat (I don’t travel with more than 3 changes of clothing and a few extra underwear).
Day 4 and 5: One’s will becomes tested. Clothing by this time is completely covered in grim, dirt, food stains. Perspiration causes your outerwear (and inner) to conform to your torsos. Frustration turns to giddiness in this state of disrepair. I began considering the only remaining clean clothing as precious items to conserve — they were all I have left.
Day 6-10: Here began the unique part of this unorthodox, unplanned, process of human understanding — once I reached day 7, 8 and definitely day 10, the notion or more so, the need for a bath evaporates – both from my consciousness and torso. It’s not that you become unreceptive to your hygiene condition — thank goodness there were few mirrors where I’ve been the last month. Rather, a natural occurrence happened; My body began to self-clean. The sweating pores of my skin — and I will stress again, continual sweating pores — began to push out, then off, most of the grim build up. Yes, clothing at this point is reaching a state of ruin, however my skin no longer smelled. Only the clothing did. Airing shirts/trousers/underwear on a tree limb each night before donning a slightly less soiled t-shirt and shorts to sleep in, the following morning my skin smelled fine. The hanging clothing, fused stiff on the tree, is what repulsed.
Day 11 and 12: Just shy of two weeks, or 12 days to be exact, I became completely one with my new self. My shirt and trousers from REI were now defiled by the harsh conditions of the Afar region, appearing as shop rags in a garage rather than material to be worn by humans. Yet astonishingly enough, my skin was relatively clean and didn’t smell. By some natural process that clearly we’ve forgotten we possess, the rancid notion of filth wasn’t so much about me — sure, I didn’t smell like a Lancôme counter in a department store — but rather, the outerwear. We seemed, by my unscientific study of self, to have built-in self-cleaning systems, which clearly evolved from millennia’s of basic environmental conditioning. No question, there was surface layers of dirt on all parts of my body, yet large areas that were once coated in dust and grime, a day or two later could be no longer seen. This had to have been caused by my natural body sweat because I never had access to water nor ever pulled out a towel.
When I did finally bathe on or around day 12 (there have been two-cycles of 12 day non-bathing travel), it felt exhilarating yet at the same time, offsetting.
Which made me wonder; Were we humans actual bathers 60,000 years ago when walking out of Africa?
Did we bathe 10,000 years ago?
2,000 years past?
Did my great grandmother and great grandfather bathe in the late 1800′s?
Now ensconced in the first (somewhat) legitimate hotel in well over a month — the mildly renovated, Hotel Dar es Salam, located in the heart of Djibouti City, Djibouti — I had to do the research.
For those of you who have a clean-self fetish, brace yourself —
We humans rarely ever bathed until just 100 or so years ago.
Here with a brief overview on the history of human bathing:
10,000 – 60,000 years ago — From the origins of our collective beginnings in Africa (yes, we are all African), very little information exist from this era regarding bathing. An article in the New Scientist has shown that Neanderthals may have learned how to sail or float across seas far sooner than humans, however the chances of Neanderthals caring about bathing would likely be nil. After walking and driving through much of our collective humanities original existence the last 40+ days, water, 60 millenniums ago, was nowhere near as scarce as it is today in Afar, Ethiopia, However observing the landscapes (from a relatively decent knowledge of geology), I could surmise fairly accurately that potable (drinkable) water was not abundant here at anytime in the last 1-2 millions years. There is evidence that fresh water existed but most are now dried lake beds. What was odd is how Afar people today do not actually live next to water sources. There are a few lakes (one very large and very close to where we began this walk in the small village of Herto Bouri), but no one seems to live next nor near to them. Such a practice of living so far from water might mirror our relatives of 60,000 year-old who also may have chosen to live away from large bodies of water (unable to swim or afraid of large animals such as hippos and crocodiles?), seeking potable water either by only walking great distances or finding water in shallow wells and streams. Today, most of the nomadic Afari’s choose to live 1-3 miles (1.6-4.8 kilometers) walk away from the nearest water source. Is this due to disputes with neighbors over water rights, making sure no one group of people have greater access to precious water over another? I could never get a meaningful answer from the countless Afari’s I asked on this topic. This lack of access to water is an misfortune and suffrage for millions around the world. My friend, Lynn Johnson, produced a powerful essay on water slavery for National Geographic a few years back titled, Burden of Thirst, illustrating just how difficult it is to gain access to water throughout much of Africa and elsewhere on earth — a labor that is borne on the women. Surely such access to water 60,000 years ago wasn’t much better. In fact, lack of water may have even led to our collective walk out of this region for greater liquid assets.
5,000-10,000 years ago — By this time, soap hadn’t even been invented nor considered. Once again, the historical record is scarce this far back. A meaningful hypothesis would indicate not much had changed in the realm of hygiene nor passion for cleanliness between say 5,000-60,000 years ago. Maybe for the extreme elite, bathing was taking place, but for the masses, likely nonexistent. Survival was of far greater importance.
2,000-5,000 years ago — It wasn’t until almost 5,000 years go (or around 2,800 BC) that soap was invented in ancient Babylon. However, by 2,800 BC, our ancestors would have already reproduced nearly 2,000 time. Whether one believes in evolution, creationism, etc (this is not a story on such a topic so let’s not debate this here!), the reality is this; Producing that many offspring would allow our skin to develop/evolve to a point of never needing such an item as soap, let alone regular bathing. Another significant aspect of migration to keep in mind is this — humans didn’t all walk out of Africa and straight to Babylon. We wandered in all directions, creating specific cultural communities in other parts of Africa, onward to Europe, Asia then into the America’s, reaching the tip of present day Chile about 7,000 years ago. In China, the first signs of bathing began only 3,000 years ago. Ancient Greeks — the most prolific bathers during this time — where one of the first to create bathing centers, the oldest discovered in a palace complex at Knossos, Crete. The Romans also seemed to have switched on to bathing around this period of time. Why and what caused this sudden interest — only within very specific locations across the planet — still seems a mystery. One thing of for certain, until this era, humans (us), didn’t give a darn about personal cleanliness.
800-2,000 years ago — Here is when things get interesting. By the fall of the Roman Empire (which began around 470 AD), bathing went out of fashion. There were ritualistic/spiritual bathing within nearly all religions during this time: Mikveh’s in Judaism, Baptism or the act of becoming cleansed/purified, blessed in Christianity, ablutions in Islam (the act of washing feet, hands, face/head) before prayers, etc, all these and more were indeed taking place around this period (the earliest in Judaism). However regular bathing was far from the norm. During the Medieval era (476-1460 AD), it’s a common myth that we didn’t bath. We DID, if you had money. The rest of us only bathed 1-4 times per year, max.
100-800 years ago — Before the great plagues in Europe (especially the Black Plague between 1348 and 1350), few in Europe, except the wealthy, bathed. But when the Black Death hit, there was some consensus that maybe this plague — which killed roughly 75 million Europeans — might be caused by the lack personal hygiene practiced at that time. Suddenly people (those who could afford it) began to bath. Ironically, cleanliness was not the reasons for the onset of the bubonic plague — it was flea-ridden rats that spread death. After this tragic period, pretty much the entire European region returned to non-bathing. On a positive note, the most cleanliest culture at the time (around the 1,400′s) was in Mesoamerica. People in this region, both the elite and the commoners, bathed each afternoon. Why they caught on to such levels of hygiene while few other societies did not, I do not know.
Here’s a few bits of interesting trivia from this era I didn’t know till doing my post non-bathing research:
How often did Queen Elizabeth I bathe in the 1600′s? About once every few weeks.
How often did European peasants (the vast majority of our relatives at that time were peasants) change their clothes between say 1200 till 1800? Rarely, maybe a handful of times per year.
How often the people bathe in the United States between say 1700-1850′s? Rarely, especially in colder regions such as where I now leave, New England.
Poverty was likely a key factor as to why our ancestors never bathed. The costs for such luxuries as soap were simply far out of reach.
Depressingly, the weight of poverty even today (2 billion humans live on just over $2 USD per day) continues to hinder access to soap or regular bathing.
If you’ve ever traveled to developing world, you will have tragically come across children, even adults, wearing your long discarded sport jerseys or a t-shit with the words “Al’s Auto Parts” meandering around a market. Chances are it’s in tattered condition, never changed nor washed for years.
In the developed world — where we have everything times infinity and we’re still not happy — we’ve become rabid bathers, driven especially by the marketing campaigns from the billion-dollar industry of cleansing products, all telling us we’re less human, less gorgeous, less a person until we look like someone in 30 second commercials and fashion magazines.
As wonderful as it feels after a bath, in many way’s it’s not healthy for our skin.
Our ragging desire — and the hundreds of dollars each year we spend on self-cleaning products — only really manifested with the arrival of indoor plumbing, or in the last 100 or so years.
The forgotten astonishment of being able to turn a knob and the near miracle of water pours — hot or cold — is, in the sense of time, a strand of hair in realm of calendar years.
Astonishing indeed, yet taken so extremely for granted.
At this moment, we’re wasting water at an alarming rate. Not by drinking it all up.
Rather, we’re wasting extreme levels of precious water via the need for more swimming pools (take out the chlorine, it’s your personal Roman bath), our desire for green grass in places where vegetation was never meant to grow and yes, by incredible water usage for bathing — on average we use 7 gallons (26.5 liters) of water per minute when taking a shower using a regular fixture.
28-36 gallons (98-136 liters) for a bath.
40-55 gallons (151-208 liters) to run a conventional cloth washing machine.
Not saying we need to revert back to Medieval bathing practices!
The point that I discovered via self analysis, our environment and culture observation (most Afar people today still only bath once a year) is this — maybe those 15 min showers some of us take could be cut back to 2 minutes.
And if you skip a day without bathing, we’ll be fine.
All that anti-bacterial soap and whatnot, use if you wish, however our bodies need bacteria in order to learn how to fend off common diseases. We’ve gone berserk in the last two-decades turning our homes into mini-sterile hospitals — thanks in part to the multi-billion dollar cleaning industry for convincing us we all must be living in sterile bubbles. And to think we fell for it.
Astounding as it may seem, by natural development, it appears our bodies (not our clothing) were design in many way to be self-cleansing.
Strange, I know, but I just experienced such an understanding.
It was indeed mighty hot in Afar for the month I photographed in this extremely unique and remote part of our world.
From 9am till 4pm, the air and land was a searing skillet of heat. No shade except for the thorny wayone (Procopis) bush or a shadow cast by a large rock, natures sundial. There was no relenting till evening and even then the wind blew desert dust everywhere.
During this time, I felt I’d become in a small way, Afari. My new Afar friends skin didn’t smell any different than my own, seeking comfort in the conformity. Yes, their clothing was a bit dirty but oddly enough, nowhere near as dirty as mine.
Most important, they were extremely proud with what few things they had. These are pastoralist, whose wealth and success is not measured by what type of car they drive, designer clothing they wear or latest gizmo that’s all the rage (most could care less about my MacBook Pro or even cameras. Only the iPhone struck their fancy because the screen was so bright, it could be used as a flashlight at night).
Value and self worth is based upon their livestock, which provide food and drink (milk), the two main sustainments of life.
Does this mean the Afar’s do not want a better life?
OF COURSE THEY DO!
Every human being seems naturally wired to seek improvements and a brighter future. The different has always been in having opportunity, a clean environment, education and freedom to choose.
For the Afar, such opportunities — most especially the environment — seems stacked against them.
Don’t let my kids read this story!
Like all children, the notion of being told to go take a bath is simply not in their lexicon till reaching the age where that hot guy or cute girl in the third row in science class begins to catch their fancy.
No longer traveling or sleeping in the desert regions of Afar out in the open under a staggering ceiling of stars, using a tent or in a truckers hotel with an alleged bathing stall that resembles an abandoned outhouse, it’s still incredibly hot here in Djibouti City.
My days now are spent wandering the streets with my wonderful new friend, Abdul, who is my driver/translator.
Like in Afar, we’re avoiding the heat (translated into Photolingo: Bad Light), working a few mornings but heavily in the afternoons and well into the late evening when the vibrancy of the city is on display.
There’s even air-conditioning in my simple windowless room at the Hotel Dar es Salam — although I can stay in basically any hotel in the city, I despise wasting even NG’s funds on characterless hotels costing hundreds of dollars a night just to rest my head for 6-8 hrs.
There’s even a communal shower down the hall, and can you believe it…it rains hot water.
Even a sit-down toilet.
Life is good.
Only thing missing is my family, whom I miss dearly.
By the way, yesterday was my wife, Anastasia, and our 20th wedding anniversary.
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY — and I promise you that in a few weeks time I’ll returned to the Berkshires all showered, in a clean pair of clothing!
All my best,
July 21, 2013 13 Comments
(Photographs on this blog, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are vignettes from the making of Out of Eden, photographed with an iPhone using the Hipstamatic lens/film combination of Jane and Sugar. The main photography will be published in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine).
All-embracing, this story is flowing far less problematic than predicted.
Months ago when first receiving a call regarding the Out of Eden project from National Geographic senior photo editor, Kim Hubbard, initial discussions were not so much on what the photography for this story would be. Rather, the focus of numerous conversations we had were on the near spectacular potential for logistical problem solving and the layers of unpredictability in order to accomplish the story.
The photography was relatively simple; Photograph whatever I wanted. A reportage wrapped around a loose theme of present day Ethiopian/Djiboutian culture and daily life.
Seems like a dream assignment, right?
In many ways, it is.
In equal measure, it’s not.
With such wide visual potential, the photography (its narrative) can become unruly with its endless possibilities.
Remember, a photo essay is about storytelling.
Imagine walking into La Scala holding an empty sheet of music. You’re presented with an entire orchestral quantity of instruments, each needing to be played not only in tuned, but collectively brilliant and coherent, in the end, filling in notes for a meaningful — dare I utter, potent — symphony which 20 million or more will listen to come December.
There is the heightened awareness that I’m not out-and-about walking the streets of Turkey’s capital to produce a feature of present day Istanbul, carnival season in New Orleans nor the stupefying development occurring in Shanghai.
Out of Eden takes place in one of the most inaccessible regions on earth, where one can drive (if the car can hold together) for hours, not seeing anyone nor even much variability in landscape.
This is arena which this symphony must be written in. Equally grand is the concert hall in which the finished concerto will be presented — a magazine that began publishing 125 years ago this month, founded by such exceptional minds as Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.
I feel as if every National Geographic story is no different than writing symphony. And once ink hits paper, performing it.
Equally interesting, the challenge is relished.
As marveling as this story is, the words my friend in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea once told me (mentioned in Journal I), are resonating in the noggin;
Expect the unexpected.
In planning for eight to ten weeks of nonstop overland travel throughout most of Ethiopia and literally all of the tiny African nation of Djibouti, I’ve had to muster the wisdom of Job — and nearly 30 years of working on complicated stories in over 80 countries — tapping as much extreme foresight as possible; When one thing goes wrong — as they often do — it can cause a chain reaction of problems.
Nearing week three, so far so good.
The photography is flowing very well. Some days are nothing but travel. Other days are overwhelmingly visual. Another day might be untangling unanticipated logistics. All typical events in photojournalism, especially when connected to rigorous travel across multiple countries.
To avoid one my archetypal narratives, here, in list form, is a rundown of what normally — and I do mean, normally — happens while on complex logistical assignments for National Geographic magazine, all which indeed occurred in the last fifteen or more days:
1- First Landcruiser — Ruined front-left break cylinder. In addition, a front shock absorber literally ripped off it’s mount. Both were destroyed due to extreme road/terrain conditions. While the driver limping the vehicle back to Addis Ababa, I rode in Paul Salopek’s car — and at times, Paleoathropologist Tim White’s Landcruiser — while a replacement Landcruiser was driven up from Addis on or about day seven with a new driver.
2- Second Landcruiser — this replacement could have been Fred Flintstones automobile for all I cared. Just so long as it was strong, able to handle this astonishing Afar terrain, keeping me on course for this story. Fortunately, it was an extremely strong car, however overall this replacement looked and drove like a beaten Russian Lada. In addition, the new driver, though a nice fellow, was an incessant whinier, driving me berserk.
3- Thorns — This second Landcruiser could at least drive almost anywhere due to it’s strength. However, by day eight or nine, we had a series of blown tires caused by the all-pervasive, 2 inch (5cm) long thorns of the woyane bush (the Procopis plant). These thorns are so strong, they can piece most tires. The woyane bush had been brought into Ethiopia from South America decades back in a misguided attempt to stop erosion in the Afar region. Now, this invasive species has spread in such prolific ways that just in the last two to three years the woyane bush is so thick, it creates an impenetrable barrier, causes us to drive sometimes 5-10 miles (8-16 kilometers) just to get around the densely packed growth — and there are no road where we’re traveling, making the drive to circumvent a journey and significant time loss.
4- Third Landcruiser — Avoiding the potential for more car trouble, I went back to Addis, personally choosing a third and this time decent Landcruiser. The driver, Melesse, is patient, professional, willing to push his car to extremes…and he doesn’t whine.
5- Permits — To travel and work in remote Afari villages of Ethiopia (off of well-known travel paths like the road to the Erta Ale volcano, a popular tourist vista to ogle), you need special documentation. Not just from the Ethiopian government but additional paperwork from a regional administration office in Afar which oversees local affairs. Due to misspelling a towns name in Amharic script (the misspelling turned the villages name into town which is not even in the Afar area), we needed to update this special Afar travel permit, taking two-days in drive time to sort.
6- Electricity — Traveling in areas with zero access to electricity (forget even having access to water for bathing) means the need for electricity is supreme to charge the cacophony of power-thirsty items in tow:
Thuraya satellite phone
Bgan satellite internet
4-mobile phones (drivers, translators, mine and at times even a forth phone belonging to a local Afar guide)
Electrical necessity was especially true one fine morning a few days back — the car battery labored like an overburden donkey to start the Landcruiser. What I had been harboring in the recesses of the cranium was about to take place — using the power inverters (turning 12v into 120v) would soon destroy the car’s battery, stranding us for what could be days, even weeks, in area which truly could be called The Middle of Nowhere. After tracking down an overpriced generator manufactured in China, we were good to go. Or so I thought — that brand-less small generator has already ruined two power adapters. Yesterday, we found a voltage stabilizer. From years of experience living in Asia with terribly unstable electricity, we now (should) indeed be sorted with a third layer of stable power potential, backed up with cigarette lighter charger and the power inverter (to be used sparingly).
By the way, if you ever want to make loads of new friends, carry this mini-nuclear power station in the back of your car, arrive to a village that has no electricity…and where everyone seems to have your discarded (vintage?) 2002 Nokia phone at a battery level of 5 percent!
7- Unexpected — I received a call from National Geographic on around day 5 of Out of Eden, requesting an additional photograph of Paul, walking with his camels, for another story National Geographic is publishing in either June or July (not for Out of Eden, rather, something else). Out of Eden will appear in the December 2013 issue and has and editing/layout deadline for sometime in July, four months after returning Stateside. This added photograph had to be accomplished far sooner — lightning fast by National Geographic standards; By end of this month. More so, it must be both different and brilliant — you know it has to be when the Editor in Chief, Chris John, speaks to you for 10 minutes via the satellite phone on the importance of this very specific photograph.
Even in semi-normal circumstances this would be simple photograph to achieve. In the Afar region, it’s not. Here is why:
a: Original Plan – This story (the photography), Out of Eden, was never going to be about Paul. Rather, I was to meander, muse, go adrift (my favorite part about these types of stories) anywhere in Afar, moseying along a non-ascertained trajectory beginning in Herto, Ethiopia, arriving 8-10 weeks thereafter (overland) to Djibouti City, Djibouti. I was only going to follow Paul on the beginning of his walk while my support vehicle positioned itself ahead in a village 5-10 miles (8-12k) away, reconnecting with all my supplies in 1-2 days. In this Landcruiser is a near Dave Matthews Band concert level of cables and whatnot to keep everything charged and working.
The support vehicle also contains complete camping gear for 3-4 people (Yonas, my translator/friend, driver, myself and at times a local Afar guide), food, water, and most important —7 lbs (3kg) of the finest Ethiopian coffee. We were to reconnect in Djibouti City, the end of the first leg in his seven year walk from Herto to Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America. This was the plan, the logistical and infrastructure objective to make one meaningful — and yes, hopefully brilliant — image of Paul leaving the origins of our collective humanities migration out of a very small, extremely remote, village known as Herto. With this unexpected call requesting a second — completely different —image of Paul walking, the dynamics (plan) had to change. Rapidly.
b: Logistics – It takes time to sort camels as a mode of transport. One doesn’t walk up to a camel owner saying: “Hi, would you like to walk with me as your camel carries 300 lbs (136kg) of kit over truly fascinating yet inhospitable terrain, leaving your family, farm and livelihood for the next month?” With Paul Salopek’s camels already laded with the supplies for him and his guide, I could only trouble them to carry my camera bag and a tent. This plan worked, albeit for two days of walking.
c: Weather — Paul’s emergence out of Herto didn’t take him through truly epic landscapes. Also, it was overcast, which helps in reducing the Afar heat, however it also reduces the potential for stunning visuals unless a flock of pterodactyl were to fly through the grey sky — and that ain’t gonna to happen. Even so, I was able to make a beginning step with a meaningful photograph of Paul starting his walk for either the main Out of Eden story that will appear in the December issue or for this special request for the June or July issue. Still, I needed one more photograph of Paul journeying.
d: Sprinting — Can’t say I often photograph camel caravans. Yes, I have photographed camel markets. Even ridden a few members of the humped-back family, however I’ve never had to follow on foot a camel walking for any great distance. Camels walk in long strides — three steps for every four human steps. This means walking at a decent clip, requiring constant running in order to be ahead of Paul or else repeatedly photograph him from behind or from the side. After hours of walking, even in overcast Afar, the physical effort of chasing forward to photograph grew impossible after a few kilometers. There had to be a better solution.
e: Inaccessible — With camels, Paul can travel over any and all terrain. More so, Paul is indeed walking on ancient camel trails. Most, if not all, completely impenetrable even via Landcruiser. Now, after a week or so apart, I will reconnect today with Paul in Afar (for security reasons I am not mentioning town names) where we’ll work out the potential path of his next few days journey, in turn drive (and walk) far enough ahead of him to photograph his arrival, and then passing, as Paul walks through — with flowing levels of serendipitous optimism — epic landscapes. This should be the potent means of making this second photograph of Paul.
The importance of sharing the above is not for my friends and colleagues, most of whom have dealt with similar circumstances. Rather, this is to share with those of you who intend one day to do such genre of photography and the fascinating realism of what to expect, which is always that of the unexpected.
Here with the truth about what it’s like working on a National Geographic assignment:
As involving as some of these events have been — cars, paperwork, a constant dance to solve logistical land travel, chasing ahead of Paul, power supply…not to mention incessant level of bugs, extreme heat, 8+ days in the same clothing with no access to bath, lunch and dinner being tibs, tibs and more tibs (tibs is goat meat) — all of this is completely normal. In fact, within the scope of what is involved in such a story, all these events have been minor.
As candid as possible — if events were not going as they have, I’d be concerned.
And other than missing my family back on the farm in the Berkshires, I couldn’t be more delighted or enthralled with the visual progress (and journey) so far.
Now the reality when producing any involving/layered story; It’s 99 percent problem solving and 1 percent photography, all wrapped around a heaping scoop of serendipity.
Growing up in Nassau in the 1970′s, each morning, me and my classmates would sing the Bahamian National Anthem. A part of that anthem always resonates whenever a hurdle rears its head:
“Forward, Upward, Onward, Together”
As week three rounds the bend, I’ve often caught myself humming those words, relishing in what resides ahead, knowing that the resplendence of this story is always present, cloaked in a heavy layer of fascinating orchestration and spectacular moments of visual brilliance, knowing this assignment will continue the grandeur of expecting the unexpected.
All the best from the Afar region of Ethiopia,
January 25, 2013 1 Comment
Rarely do I travel with more than one piece of check-in luggage.
Maximum, one medium-sized rolling bag containing a few changes of clothing, loads of underwear, socks and a tube of toothpaste — airport security does not like such items anymore in carryon luggage.
Thanks, Richard Reid…AKA, The Shoe Bomber.
All minimalism is out with the bathwater on this latest story for National Geographic.
Three bags — two mega, the other my normal checkin — went into the cargo hold of two planes, as I traveling from the farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts to Ethiopia where they now rest beside me in a 5th floor room of a three-star hotel in this sublime nations capital.
It has taken months of planning for this assignment — illuminatingly titled, Out of Eden — to prepare for every sublet nuance this project may throw; Eight to ten weeks, traveling overland from discovered remains of our first human ancestors in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia — literally where each of our brothers and sisters walked out of Africa 60,000 years ago, populating this astonishing planet we can only call home — meandering across deserts, mountains, ravines, depressions and villages, till I reach Djibouti City, Djibouti, sometime in March.
Like New York City, the Djiboutans named it twice.
For those following this story on my Facebook page, Twitter or on Instagram, you might be wondering why I’m carrying so much kit compared to my colleague, superb human, Pulitzer Prize winning writer (twice), National Geographic Fellow and official walker for the Out of Eden, Paul Salopek?
I know my dearest of friends, Gary Knight, has been wondering.
Simple — Paul has seven years to walk from our ancestors remains till reaching Tierra del Fuego — and for this first part of Out of Eden, as long as he needs — totting I believe nothing more than a few changes of clothing, pens, notepads, a laptop, sat phone, solar charger, sleeping gear and other minimal bits and pieces, doing so at least from Afar to Djibouti City with a camel Paul purchased last week who will carry most of these items…including water and basic food stuffs (will be meeting up with Paul tomorrow evening to actually witness what he’s fully carrying).
Encumbered — I’m carry more bobbles and bits which require electricity than a small village might demand in a week, not to mention camping gear for a translator, driver and myself.
Yes, I’m traveling in a car.
Here is why:
Gone are the days when a photographer on a National Geographic story only needed a backpack to carry clothing, a few hundred rolls of film and a camera bag with cameras that only required little more than two watch-sized batteries to operate its metering for weeks on end.
The rest was manual — and we liked it.
With everything gone digital, we now tote a substantial collection of gizmos and contraptions, each requiring their own special cable, a virtual tangled bowl of spaghetti noodles and clamoring hunks of electrical plastic meatballs, the whole lot demanding power. All this nonsense is needed (along with portable 120/220 electricity) or else cease being able to take photographs within 1-2 days.
As much as traveling on camel back may seem romantic, Yonas Abiye (super talented journalist with The Reporter newspaper), a driver (gifted with memory retention of a pasta strainer, I’ve tragically forgotten his name post brief meeting today) and myself will make this journey starting near Mille (pronounced phonetically as Mill-ay), in the Afar region of Ethiopia, to the border with Djibouti, in a grayish-blue toned 2008 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser.
Even if I didn’t have this triple sherpa load of whatnot to carry, here is why I’m driving:
This story, Out of Eden, is not about Paul.
Rather, it’s a story about our collective humanities migration out of Africa to where we each live today.
Therefore, I will not be following in Paul’s footsteps.
In fact I plan to get completely lost, zigzagging in all direction, photographing a reportage piece on the society, culture, landscapes and truly anything and everything which comes my way, illustrating what this part of the world, and its people, are doing today.
Come sometime likely in early March — communucating with Paul periodically via satellite phone — I will meet up with him as he arrives in Djibouti City.
Wonderfully expressed once by a Highlander friend in Papua New Guinea while on another National Geographic story a few years back — sharing with her how unexpected and wildly magical everything kept occurring while in country — she uttered in a marvelously dry tone:
“Expect the unexpected, John”.
With only a few hours remaining in this somewhat unaired room — for a $150 a night hotel, it oddly lacks an air conditioner nor any understandable means to open a window — I thought it might be interesting to start the journals of this journey with some insight regarding what I’m carrying in this anomalous matching set of Eagle Creek bags and their trusty sidekick, the always toting ThinkTank Airport camera roller.
While Monk’s Dream plays from this MacBook Pro speakers (richly expanded on these already brilliant Retina display speakers using the app, DPS…a must have plugin for iTunes — wowy!) here’s The Kit for part one of Out of Eden:
NOTE: IF CURIOUS, CLICK ON THIS ABOVE IMAGE WHICH HAS EACH ITEM LABELED, THEN REFER TO THE DETAILS BELOW
1- Eagle Creek Load Warrior 25 inch roller — This bag contains all clothing for two or more months:
(The first two clothing items have been The Uniform for the last 10 years while on assignments, all the same color — kaki tan pants, dark green shirts, and surprisingly holding up extremely well)
REI light weather pants — three
REI light weather long sleeve shirts — five
Shorts — one
T-shirts — two
Sleeping t-shirt — one
Sleeping shorts — one
Underwear — ten
Dress Shirt — one
Jeans — one
2- Eagle Creek duffle — Empty, stored in main luggage for when needed
3- Eagle Creek Gear Warrior Wheeled Duffel 36 in roller — two, used for carrying most of that crap you see on the floor
4- Cliff & Luna Bars — 73 white chocolate macadamia nut power powers…breakfast for the next two months
5- Medical Kit — Containing more meds, bandages and whatnot than
6- iPhone Camera Cable — Supported through a Kickstarter project, Trigger Happy (not my favorite name for this — remember, cameras don’t shoot anything. They take in light. Only guns shoot) is something I’ve yet to use. hopefully it works
7- Reading Glasses — Five sets, in case loosing one, two or more — a habit I’ve been able to master over the years until discovering they were already on top of my head or crushed in a pocket
8- Toiletries — Hand sanitizer, toothpastes, a hair tie…I’m a minimalist
9- Multi-Plug Adapter
10- 120-volt cigarette lighter power supply
11- Camera towel
12- Various headlamps
13- My tent
14- Driver/translators tent
15- Reusable Twists — Various sizes of heavy-duty twisties. Hang about anything, anywhere
16- Bathing Soaps — These are amazing anti-mosquito repellent soaps that contain citronella. Found them years ago while passing through the Johannesburg airport while working on the National Geographic story, Malaria. Picked up an entire box. Unfortunately, these are the last three bars. Sure hope I route through South Africa again soon
17- Bug Repellent Cream
18- Muti-purpose Tool
19- Lamps — Battery power, they put out gobs of light
21- Ground Tarp — Small tent
22- Sunscreen Mozzie Repellant
23- Ground Tarp — Large tent
24- Mosquito Spray — 100% DEET (malaria country where we’re going)
25- ThinkTank Airport Roller — Have had this amazing (and I mean AMAZING) roller carry-on camera case for over 7 years. It’s been through more airports, up/down more stairs, tossed, dropped and careened across floors, rocks and deserts more times than can be counted in memory. Besides a touch bit of the rubber on the wheels fraying, this bag from ThinkTank keeps on going strong. Here’s what’s inside:
Canon 5D Mark III — two
24 1.4 lens
35 1.4 lens
50 1.2 lens
Battery Charges — two
Batteries — four
ThinkTank — A small Retrospective model shoulder bag. This is where a few of the lenses go when out and about. The rest stays in the roller, taken out when needed
26- Inflatable Pillow — Brookstone blow up felt neck pillow (for plane travel)
27- Clothing — Paint/shirts
28- Collapsible Chair — REI has a super-nify foldable chair. This will be seriously used when waiting about in remote areas for the light to get brilliant
29- Stuff — Sharpies, international drivers license, medical vaccine card, passport sized photos, more hair ties and in the envelope, NGM’s amazing Dazzler letter of introduction
30- Map/Guidebook — Lonely Planets guide to Ethiopa and detailed maps of Ethiopia and Djibouti
31- Flash Cardholder — Deputy Director of Photography, Ken Geiger, was kind enough to give me one of the new NGM ThinkTank flashcard holders when I was in DC a few weeks ago for the Out of Eden story prep. They are being given away to National Geographic photographers at next weeks seminar, which unfortunately I’ll be missing this event — sorry for blowing the surprise
32- Clothing — A few more pants/shirts, haphazardly placed on the floor rather than in the other clothing pile
33- USB Cigarette Lighter Charger
34- World Map
35- NGM Luggage Tags
36- Water Bags — To protect kit in case it rains and as backup laundry bags
37- Sleeping Bag — Small
38- Sleeping Bag — Larger
40- NG Hat — Gift for someone along the trip
41- Hammock Ties
42- Mosquito Net
43- Mosquito Net
44- Power Inverters — Two 300volt models that turns 12volt car battery power into 120volt power. To be used to charge a MacBook Pro, camera batteries, sat phone, iPhone, etc
46- Multi-Plug Adapter — Two more for a total of three
47- Belt — Special type…
48- Small Bag
50- Mesh Bag
51- French Press Coffeemaker — THE most important piece of the kit
52- Shelters — Three Kelty 3×3 meter shelters to protect driver, translator and myself from the harsh Afar desert sun while waiting for good light
53- Waterproof Zipper Bags — To hold all the various loose items seen here
54- Small Bag
56- Inflatable Pillow
57- Self-Inflating Mattress
58- Satellite Phone — Thuraya. Including a Thuraya Wifi Hotspot box, allowing to wirelessly connect all communication items to the internet from any location
59- Hiking Shoes
60- Canon Cigarette Lighter Battery Charger Kit
61- Hardrives — Two, 2TB Western Digital USB3, which will make transferring photographs off cards and into Aperture each day an extremely quick task
This is The Kit, which will (should) sustain most if not all needs for the next two or more months while driving throughout more than half of Ethiopia and all of Djibouti — yes, Gary, I’m driving, not walking nor with a camel because tomorrow I pick up the LaMarzocco expresso machine and generator…
Hope the peering into my bags — bags which received more Likes on Facebook than likely any photo of just bags have ever receive — was informative.
4 hours till Yonas Abiye and the driver arrive at the hotel for the 10+ hour drive to the Afar region to meet Paul.
And satellite phone is still not working. Sure hope Thuraya in Dubai sorts this soonest or this might be the one and only journal from the trip. . .
All my best,
January 6, 2013 Comments Off
Normally, it can take weeks (even months) preparing a story for this space. I need time in my attempts to share something imaginative, hopefully insightful — or dare I reach as an offering towards a sliver of enlightenment — in an era when everything and anything is brilliantly rehashed on the Internet.
This week I’ve decided to loose my laundry and dive as rapidly as I can into the Ring of Blogging Fire on a topic surely well written upon. What happened just under two weeks ago (though it’s been quietly going on for sometime) is indeed one of the biggest developments not only in the world of field recording history, it’s also a landmark moment for social documentary photography.
The Alan Lomax collection is now completely accessible online — 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, piles of manuscripts — including 5,000 photographs he took over this astonishing career.
Oh, did I mention the best part…these thousands of hours of audio are not only accessible in their entirety (most of the Lomax collection has been available online for years but as 45 second intro pieces), they are streaming for FREE!
For those who do not know who Alan Lomax was, he was an American folklorist and one of the preeminent ethnomusicologists of our time. Born in Texas in 1915, Alan was the son of John Lomax, a teacher and pioneering folklorist in his own right. By age 17, Alan Lomax began traveling with his father throughout the American south and the Caribbean as his dad made what are considered some of the most important early recordings of American culture while working for the Library of Congress (John Lomax set out in 1933 on the first recording expedition ever undertaken by the Library of Congress with son Alan in tow). According to Don Fleming with the Association for Cultural Equity, Alan primarily traveled with a Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder and two RCA 77-D microphones — would need a well padder steamer trunk for such a large but truly awesome quality kit. He also traveled with camera, taking photographs that matched his field recordings in places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Scotland, England, Ireland, all over the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. Here are some photographs of Alan Lomax throughout his 60 years of literally recording our world ~
When the Association for Cultural Equity, a not-for profit Mr. Lomax started, announced that the entire Alan Lomax Collection would be available for streaming, I was beyond thrilled. In my World Music collection I have two or three treasured CD’s of his which are as pure and raw as it gets.
During the last 20 years of his life, Lomax created an interactive multimedia educational computer project he called the Global Jukebox. This recent ability for the entire collection to be accessible to everyone is indeed a dream come true for Alan, who died at the age of 87 in 2002 — he wanted his messages of change, inspiration and education to be available for all.
This is huge on many levels.
Lomax wasn’t only the preeminent and pioneering ethnomusicologist and field recordist of our time, he was social documentarian who used both audio and photography to educate and raise awareness of issues. In many ways, he was a fellow photojournalist.
Take a gander as some of these rare contacts which a young Alan, about 18 years of age, took while he and his father worked for the Library of Congress ~
His microphones and cameras traveled the world during an era when musical traditions were already under pressure due to development and cultural apathy. Lomax knew the importance of creating audio recordings and photographs as a means to make change and raise awareness, well before a drop of notion that a tool called the Internet would arrive, let along recording device that would fit into a shirt pocket. Lomax knew that the musical and cultural traditions which took all of human civilization to develop was under pressure and about to becoming extinct, in the same manner of urgency that the present day preservation of linguistic heritage is sending anthropologists (sadly with scarce funding) to record the last speakers of dying languages on our planet — every two weeks a last speaker dies, taking with them the vestiges of our global language which not only makes up our global cultural heritage, we lose the wisdom of our ancestors.
Lomax was also a social activist, focusing heavily on civil rights issues, once again using music/field recordings and photography as a compendium against social injustice and raising cultural awareness. He was a co-founding member of People’s Songs, with Pete Seeger and others in 1945, with the belief that folk music could be an effective impetus for social change. His recordings from America’s southern states in the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s were key in raising awareness and helping to end racial discrimination while Lomax championed civil rights issues for African Americans.
Alan Lomax used the power of images and the awesome power of sound not just to record history, he used these communication tools to make a difference.
This is one of my favorite Lomax quotes:
“The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice.”—Alan Lomax, 1972
I can type effortlessly for hours on how important Alan Lomax was to the preservation of culture and the weighted issues on a whole host of human rights efforts and activism he was connected to. Given the wealth of the Lomax collection now accessible to all — and the countless books, news articles and whatnot written/recorded about Mr. Lomax — you can easily learn more about this extremely talented and passionate individual yourself by making a simply Google search (click here). Anyone wanting to really delve deep into Lomax’s career and life, make sure to read the book, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.
My reason for rapidly writing this piece — and what’s often overlooked in all the writings, reviews and ravings about Alan Lomax — is his eye.
Alan Lomax was a pretty darn good photographer.
I hope these few photographs — and Alan Lomax’s entire archive — inspires you as much as it has me for continuing to use our cameras to make social change for those who cannot themselves, while in compendium, make field recordings, helping to expand the minds and hearts of others through the consciousness arresting power of sound and sight.
These days we tend to call it multimedia.
Fine, though I prefer to call it Visual Audio.
Either way, well before anyone of us were creating such combination storytelling, Alan Lomax was…and most of us weren’t even born yet.
NOTE: An enormous level of gratitude goes to Nathan Salsburg and Don Fleming — both with the Association for Cultural Equity — for allowing me to used un-watermarked photographs taken by Alan Lomax over his amazing career. Nathan had the weighted task of gathering 20+ high res files and helping me source proper captions. A super group of people continue the legacy of Alan Lomax, all of whom I’d be honored to meet on my next visit to New York City.
April 9, 2012 3 Comments
Musicians and photographers are a strange yet similar lot.
Balafon, cello, guitar, marimba, sitar, trumpet, voice…
DSLR, Holga, iPhone, pinhole camera, rangefinder, 6×6, view camera…
Chant, classical, folk, jazz, punk, rock, ska…
Advertising, architecture, art, fashion, paparazzi, photojournalism, sports…
After years of jamming in shit-hole bars, playing bland Bar Mitzvah’s or waiting tables, sometimes a musician gets a break, records a few meaningful albums then hits the road, sharing their music and message, performing night after night at their apex because people have paid good money to hear what touches their soul.
After toiling as an intern, self-funding projects by nearly living off of food stamps or working a few dull part-time jobs just to make ends meet, sometimes the photographer gets a break, does a number of short but meaningful assignments, then hits the road on longer projects, performing at their apex day after day because you’ve been hired to deliver nothing less.
The two professions are linked inextricably by the act of performing. Not as a rockstar — that only feeds an ego — but for the art and purpose of communication.
Photojournalist share another common thread with musicians, that of activism, helping bit by bit to turn the wheel of change.
We preform the roll of observer for others who cannot witness the event themselves. Images are the link which helps bind us collectively — a starving person in one part of the world is no different then a hungry neighbor up the road, yet if either plight is not witnessed, who would know to help? If no one documented the atrocities of war, how could those who perpetrate war crimes ever truly be held accountable? Were it not for those who often turn down more lucrative forms of photography, would important in-depth reportage on issues from the Congo or the foreclosure disaster in the United States ever become ink on paper or pixels on an iPad?
Having no witness begets the evils and weaknesses of humanity.
Had Paul Simon not produce the album, Graceland, how many more in our general population (especially outside of the continent) would have not known the oppression in South Africa, or would Stephen Biko have become a near globally recognized name for the enormous sacrifice he made where it not for Peter Gabriel’s 1980′s song, Biko, and his unflinching commitment to help end apartheid? Would the environmental movement not be were it is today without folk singer Pete Seeger? Would the plight for those in need in Bangladesh during the early 70′s not been raised to it’s global awareness without the efforts of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, or would the world have banded together magically on it’s own had Bob Geldof not ran himself ragged to pull off Live Aid in the 1985?
Both the musician and photographer exert passionately for hours on end. It is not work. It’s an obsession. A purpose. The notion of calling it work is as absurd as saying breathing or urinating is laborious.
Photographs and music have another definitive connection; They are benchmarks of time and history. When viewing the shocking Kent State massacre photograph, I become enraged, hearing songs such as Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Birds. Images from the Vietnam War, Joan Baez’s album Where Are you Now, My Son fills the head and Edwin Starr screams his anti-war anthem, WAR.
After years of being on the road, a pattern began to form — just as the music which played on the radio when I was a teenager become that years soundtrack of summer, the music heard while on the road forever becomes the soundtrack of that assignment. An audible link. A metaphor. A reference to time. Suddenly an album or song takes on new meaning, sometimes comical, other times weighted.
For instance…traveling in 1999 to the brothel-ridden southern border town of Ruili, China, for a Time Magazine story on border towns, translator and friend, Casper (yes, she choose her English name after the Friendly Ghost), commandeered the China Southern Airlines music player, tricking the stewardess that the cassette she had in hand was music everyone onboard would love. We jammed at 35,000 feet listening to the Doors blasting through the isle. Jim Morrison also accompanied us throughout the long car drives to the Burma border in Yunnan Province. Every time I think of Ruili or see the following photograph, I hear The Doors.
Driving through Central Java with my dearest of friends, Heri Yanto (Heri tragically passed away last year), we stumbled upon a cassette sold at a small warong (shop), that became our soundtrack to the National Geographic story, Volcano Gods. Since ancient Javanese spirituality and Ponorogan culture have connectable roots to Mount Merapi, it seemed mystically fitting that Music from Ponorogo would forever be heard every time I gander a photograph from that story, with it’s hypnotic suling (Javanese flute) and trance-like percussion.
And for some odd reason while covering the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, James Taylor’s album, October Road, became the soundtrack while moving through some of the most precarious roads ever traveled with my friend Raza Khan (Raza also tragically passed away a few years back). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the most amazing qawali singer ever, shared speaker time, however somehow October Road united with the harsh yet staggering landscape. Think it had to do with witnessing so much loss and suffering, finding hope and love in the track, September Grass.
While packing just over two weeks ago — at the very last minute, of course — for an assignment in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the need for choosing the right soundtrack was paramount…it would require driving throughout much of Washington State, the Oregon coast and possibly Northern California.
In many ways, the decision was more weighted then the gear that still needed packing: underwater camera housing, special tripod clamps, oddball cables, gaffers tape, camping gear, mozzie net, etc.
In fact organizing the camera bits are simple.
It’s the choice of music which often takes the weight of thought and time.
Rummaging through the music library, slowly and methodically, the audio narrative took shape. Here is what Part I of the assignments musical accompaniment sounded like:
Peter Gabriel – US
Neil Young – Harvest
Tchaikovsky – Symphony #6
Pigmy Chants of Central Africa – Hunting, Love and Mockery Songs
Musicians of the Nile – Luxor to Isna
Taking Heads – Stop Making Sense
Japanese Shakuhachi – Japanese flute music
Sundanese – Batawi
Frank Sinatra – Greatest Hits
U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Górecki – Miserere
Sundanese – Classical Music
Dave Matthews Band – Live in Central Park
The CD player of the Chevy Traverse become the epicenter of musical timekeeping, naturally heralding, in it’s own time, an album that would become the soundtrack for part one of this latest National Geographic story.
Jabbering incessantly on geology, devising our own audible manual to assemble rather complex foldable Folbot kayaks and the recounting of past peculiar events, forester Dave and I were only able to enjoy around 70 percent of the audio enlightenment; Japanese Shakuhachi, U2, Sundanese, Talking Heads, Pigmy Chants of Central Africa, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon, each selected by Dave and played in that order over long drives through some rather stunning Pacific Northwestern landscape. A week ago we were still on the road at 1:30 am with the only place open for dinner being a 7-11 for hot dogs and chips — U2 and a cup of weak joe kept me awake for another hour, barely. Damn, sure live high on the hog while on NG assignments, don’t we.
Allowing the music to decide what will forever be indelibly referenced as the soundtrack to the 1,400+ miles of driving, a near regular ritual begins, preformed after every story, arising most specifically while flying home, this time lost in clouds hovering over the Cascade Mountains — reflecting on what has been photographed and what lies ahead.
The most invocation-filled moments — along with non-photography bits, like this blog entering completion — tends to happen on planes. Though the carbon footprint is obscene (sadly, it’s impractical to walk from the farm in New England westward to Seattle, Washington…Louis and Clark took over a year back in 1804-05 just from Ohio to Oregon), there’s a certain sense of peace found in planes.
Maybe it’s because there’s nowhere to go. Maybe it’s the hum of the engines playing on the consciousness with its monotoned drone. Maybe it’s the lack of distractions. Really haven’t a clue. But I’m truly balanced and at peace while being in the belly of a bird…and giddy as a school boy in lederhosens during each take off and landing with the bizarre notion of being encased in what basically is a 10-story building, turned on its side, with two flat sticks on either side.
Oh yeah, and it flies.
One thing is for certain…I don’t sense this story — which had significant hurdles to overcome during the last two weeks — will change the world. Unfortunately it’s not going to end hunger nor put a halt to wars. However the purpose of this story, like so many others we all do, is to help us think. Think about our future related to events which can happen to many of us, in turn hopefully saving lives.
A bit of a tall order indeed. One at the very least should be tried, helping, if possible, to turn the cog just ever so slightly further, awaiting the next hand to turn the wheel of change.
PS: Least I forget; Thank you, Kōhachiro Miyata, for fusing your fluid style of shakuhachi with the State of Washington while driving at dusk along Route 8 towards the coast. And to Frank, The Chairman of the Board, dripping your velvet voice while driving under moonlight along the Pacific Coast Highway (Rt. 101) in Oregon, embossing soundtracks to the White Horse along the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
July 21, 2011 2 Comments